PUBLICATIONS ON O'NEILL: REVIEWS AND ABSTRACTS
1. HORST FRENZ and SUSAN TUCK, eds., EUGENE O'NEILL'S CRITICS: VOICES FROM ABROAD. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1984. xx + 225 pp. $22.50. ISBN: 0-8093-1143-7.
Given his stature and importance, Eugene O'Neill has been the subject of surprisingly few anthologies of criticism. Hastily scanning an incomplete shelf, I see only six from the past: Oscar Cargill's O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism (1961), John Gassner's O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964), Jordan Miller's Playwright's Progress: O'Neill and the Critics (1965), John Henry Raleigh's Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Iceman Cometh" (1968), Ernest Griffin's Eugene O'Neill: A Collection of Criticism (1976) and Virginia Floyd's Eugene O'Neill: A World View (1979). So a new collection, whatever its merits, is to be welcomed; and the present one, though not all of its inclusions bristle with insight, is a worthy successor and complement to the six that preceded it. Only one of its major entries (by Hofmannsthal) has been anthologized before (in Cargill and Miller); many of its selections have not only been long inaccessible but appear here for the first time in English translation; and it is the first collection--at least the first American collection--to concentrate solely on O'Neill's reputation in lands other than his own. In addition, as I will later suggest, even if there is paste amid the gems, the totality is more than the sum of its parts.
First, a word about the parts. The fruit of Horst Frenz's dedicated collecting of O'Neilliana through a long and distinguished career, Eugene O'Neill's Critics comprises thirty articles, long and short, spanning 1922-1980, by twenty-six writers from seven-teen countries. Since the authors include translators, directors and playwrights as well as scholars, O'Neill's work and achievement are assessed from a variety of perspectives. Each of the contributors is introduced in a succinct but thorough biographical headnote, and the eight-page introduction by Professor Tuck holds the book together by suggesting the unity amid the diversity that follows: "Written at various stages of O'Neill's career, the selections ... are like so many pieces of a puzzle which, fitted together, provide a picture of Eugene O'Neill's reception and reputation, his success and failure as an international dramatist" (p. xiv). There are also seventeen illustrations--twelve photos of productions, two set designs, two sketches of the playwright and one poster. (One wishes that some of the pictures had reproduced more sharply, and that there had been more careful correlation between text and illustration. E.g., a photo of Nina Andrycz and Zygmunt Kestowicz, as Abbie and Eben in the 1960 Warsaw production of Desire Under the Elms, appears on p. 102, accompanying an essay from Buenos Aires, while the discussion of both actors' performances doesn't appear until pp. 118-119! One suspects that the editors had no control over this.) And the book concludes with an extensive three-part bibliography: I. "Selected Critical Studies, Bibliographies and Biographies of O'Neill" (32 entries); II. "O'Neill the International Playwright: Selected Books and Articles" (252 entries--fifteen, it is gratifying to note, from the Eugene O'Neill Newsletter); and III. "O'Neill's Plays in Translation" (selected lists of published translations from 33 countries).
Of course the puzzle that Professor Tuck describes remains for the reader to solve, but the editors have aided the task in two important ways: they have included an index, so a student of one play, for instance, is spared the maddening task of having to root out all references to that work; and they have decided, wisely, to present the material chronologically, rather than dividing it along national lines. As a result of the latter choice, one notices immediately the tremendous boost that receipt of the Nobel Prize gave to O'Neill's overseas respectability. And it is for such reasons that I said the book is more than the sum of its parts: it traces the slow but steady acceptance of O'Neill as a theatrical citizen of the world--one with clear roots in the American literary tradition (Melville, Hawthorne and Poe are frequently cited as forebears) and multiple affinities with dramaturgic and philosophical movements overseas.
In addition, since five countries are represented more than once, O'Neill's reception can be traced in more specific ways as well. It is, for instance, interesting that one of his most ardent defenders and one of his most virulent detractors came from the playwright's own ancestral homeland of Ireland. (Unfortunately, Sean O'Casey's praise can't hold a candle to the wild, windy denunciations of St. John Ervine; and one wonders why the 2 1/2 pages by O'Casey--excerpts from three letters--were included at all, except for the fact that he was an important fellow dramatist. They seem to have little beyond a rhapsodic style to recommend them.) Here is a sample from each:
Actually, since O'Casey's comments predate Ervine's by seventeen years, the views of the two Irish critics are the reverse of a trend discernible in the book as a whole: from rejection to affection, from vilification to veneration.
One of the most interesting leitmotifs in the collection is the difficulty O'Neill had in winning acceptance in France, and two of the three French authors offer reasons for his tardy welcome there. Maurice Le Breton, writing in 1939, noted that it would take a "serious effort" for French theatre to embrace O'Neill because "the French drama tends toward a neoclassicism," whereas "both American literature and theatre tend toward neoromanticism" (p. 65). And in 1975, writing about a French production of The Iceman Cometh eight years earlier, Catherine Mounier cites a comparable problem, though it faces the actor rather than the spectator and is only indirectly related to any clash of isms:
But the praise of Gabriel Marcel, in reviews spanning two decades (1947-1967), shows that the barrier of vastly different theatrical traditions eventually proved surmountable.
One could cite many other insights that the book provides, and probably each reader would produce a different list. Not all of its pieces are of equal merit: several, like O'Casey's, are brief and superficial; some refer hurriedly to so many plays that none gets the attention it deserves; and a few analysts, especially early ones, do not seem fully cognizant of what they are assessing. But it could be argued that a survey of O'Neill's reception abroad would be incomplete if it omitted the moments of mysti¬fication and included only epiphanies. Besides, there are more than enough substantial studies to make the book a worthy addition to any O'Neill collection. Among them, Hofmannsthal's critical treatment of O'Neill's dialogue; Alexander Tairov's scene-by-scene director's notes for his 1930 production of All God's Chillun Got Wings at the Moscow Kamerny Theatre; Toshio Kimura's treatment of the symbol of whiteness in four of the major plays; and Kenneth Tynan's ecstatic response to the 1958 London production of Long Day's Journey, which, in its vivid record of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies' performance as Mary Tyrone, epitomizes the art of reviewing at its very best:
In short, I welcome Eugene O'Neill's Critics: Voices From Abroad, congratulate its editors on a job well done (with the picky reservations specified above), and urge that all libraries acquire it. Given the rich diversity of its contents, and the modesty of its price by 1984 standards, it is a book well worth having.
--Frederick C. Wilkins
2. TOM J.A. OLSSON, O'NEILL OCH DRAMATEN. Stockholm: Akademilitteratur, 1977. 272 pp. ISBN: 91-7410-039-4.
What role did Swedish-American actress Signe Hasso play in an O'Neill production at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm? I'm not offering this puzzler for the next edition of "Trivial Pursuits," but suggesting, rather, the kinds of tangential delight afforded by Dr. Olsson's thorough treatment of O'Neill's relations with Sweden--the country that rescued him from the oblivion he'd largely been allotted at home--and of the productions of his plays at the Royal Dramatic and at other Swedish theatres as well as on radio. (Ms. Hasso, by the way, played Muriel in the 1935 production of Ah, Wilderness!) It is an important book--surely the definitive one on its subject--that abounds in facts and insights far weightier than the one with which I began. For instance, it's always revealing to learn which of O'Neill's plays have proved most successful in other countries. In Sweden, the easy winner is Long Day's Journey (120 performances at the RDT between 1956 and 1962), the runners-up being Hughie (1958, 64 performances), Ah, Wilderness! (1935, 60 performances), and Strange Interlude (1928, 54 performances). I'll leave it to others to draw whatever conclusions they choose from these performance statistics.
If potential purchasers are wary of acquiring a book in Swedish, I can assure them that there are numerous English oases (e.g., quotations from letters by Mr. and Mrs. O'Neill), a 13-page English summary (pp. 159-171), and--of special value--26 pages of valuable photographs: 52 shots of stage settings for the productions of 14 O'Neill plays at the Royal Dramatic between 1923 (Anna Christie--Sweden's first O'Neill) and 1962 (More Stately Mansions). These make the book a valuable acquisition whatever its language, and I apologize to Dr. Olsson for being so tardy in announcing its availability. Purchase requests may be sent to him at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Box 5037, 102 41 Stockholm, Sweden. --FCW.
3. Stanford S. Apseloff, "Eugene O'Neill: An Early Letter," Resources for American Literary Study, 11 (Spring 1981), 109-111.
A reprint of a letter that O'Neill wrote in Provincetown on November 19, 1919, in response to Pierre Loving's request for permission to include Ile in an anthology of Fifty Contemporary One-Act Plays that he was editing with O'Neill's Provincetown chum Frank Shay. Prof. Apseloff, who teaches at Kent State University where the letter is housed, provides full background information and notes how perceptive the playwright was about his own work and the verdict of posterity. O'Neill asks, "why 'Ile'? I rate 'Ile' just a peg above 'In the Zone' which I care not for at all.... Even from a standpoint of popular favor, 'Bound East' has the call." And a p.s. adds another candidate: "'The Moon of the Caribees' is by far my best one-act play!--and my pet." The anthology was published in 1921. Its O'Neill selection was Ile! --FCW.
4. William Goldhurst, "Misled by a Box: Variations on a Theme from Poe," Clues: A Journal of Detection (Spring/Summer 1982), pp. 31-37.
Prof. Goldhurst traces, with great narrative skill of his own, the evolution of a theme, which he calls "misled by appearances," as it appears in three works whose similarities are redolent of influence: Poe's "The Oblong Box" (1844), Conan Doyle's "That Little Square Box" (1881), and O'Neill's "In the Zone" (1916-17). Goldhurst, assessing this "literary Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance transaction," doesn't claim that O'Neill was directly influenced by the Poe story, but notes that "O'Neill, working from Doyle, has proceeded much as Doyle had, working from Poe" in creating variations on the basic theme and situation. He even draws interesting conclusions from the contents of the three works' central boxes:
In O'Neill's play, when the contents of Smitty's box are revealed, Jack mocks Davis with a remark that, Goldhurst opines, O'Neill may have planted for future critics as a hint about his source: "Yuh're a hell of a Sherlock Holmes, ain't yuh?"! --FCW.
5. Andrew B. Myers, "'Hysteria Night in the Sophomore Dormitory': Eugene O'Neill's Days Without End," Columbia Library Columns, 28 (February 1979), 3-13.
The quotation is O'Neill's--a description, in a letter to Bennett Cerf (February 28, 1934), of the Broadway critics' treatment of Days Without End, which closed fifty-seven performances after its opening on January 8. Using the Random House files now housed in Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Myers traces the events of the time, and O'Neill's responses to them, in his correspondence with his new publisher--Cerf having won O'Neill away from Liveright in 1933. O'Neill defended the play, which the Random House dust jacket prophesied would "become the most controversial play he has ever written." It was, but, as Myers notes, "it was the kind of controversy that killed--both the Broadway play, shortly, and more slowly, the book." "Both as art, and as autobiography, Days Without End is a sorry story of his intellectual wanderings as a seeker after truth." --FCW.
6. Elliot Norton, "30 years later, a look at Eugene O'Neill's long journey into night," The Boston Sunday Globe (November 27, 1983), pp. 85, 89.
Written to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of O'Neill's death (11/27/53), Norton's essay recounts the last years of the playwright's life, especially the physical, artistic, religious and marital troubles that filled his days in Marblehead and at Boston's Shelton Hotel, to which he moved on November 17, 1951, never leaving except for one hospital visit. Of Carlotta, Norton has, like many, mixed feelings. She protected O'Neill, gave him the care he needed, but there is a fine line between guardian and gorgon, and, "as the years went by, the kindly, loving helpmeet became a kind of dragon guarding the gate." The couple's destruction of uncompleted plays, the private burial ceremony, Carlotta's own last days: all familiar by now, but told with moving brevity. There is much that will never be known, especially about O'Neill's final feelings about religion. A priest called at the Shelton during the last weeks and was refused admission by Mrs. O'Neill, who later claimed that her husband wanted no clerical visitors and "would confront God--if there was a God--man to man." But Mrs. O'Neill, as Norton notes, "was not always a reliable witness." And so the rumor persists that once, near the end, when Carlotta was out, O'Neill phoned for a priest. Truth? Fiction? Norton can't tell us, but like the rest of his story (and O'Neill's), it lodges compellingly in the mind. --FCW.
7. Albert Bermel, "The Liberation of Eugene O'Neill," American Theatre (July-August 1984), pp. 4-9 & 42:
It's good to see O'Neill on the cover of the handsome new bi-monthly journal pub¬lished by the Theatre Communications Group, and to read the results of Albert Bermel's "recent sampling of opinion" about "the spearhead and the godhead of American drama"--the views of 14 theatrical practitioners particularly associated with O'Neill's work (7 directors, 5 actors and 2 designers). The composite picture is one of respect for the multitude of O'Neill's artistic virtues: "daring, verve, compassion, tenacity, persuasive delineation of characters and clashes of temperament, artistic honesty, forceful deployment of a limited vocabulary, sustained flights of imagination, the sweep of his subject matter, the inspiration of his work for other writers, the stern requirements he imposes on his interpreters, his innate Americanism as a critic of our weaknesses and beliefs" (p. 9). But O'Neill is not in danger of being treated "with too much awe," because he is "still regarded as an 'uneven' writer." Of the respondents, only director George Ferencz champions the early plays. And so, though O'Neill has been liberated from the disregard he suffered (in America) in his final years, much remains to be done, as Bermel notes in his conclusion: "The whole body of work awaits further liberation that will yield fresh treasures" (p. 42, italics added). How true. It will. And Professor Bermel's essay, accompanied by exceptionally fine illustrations, will help to set us in the right direction. --FCW.
8. Charles A. Carpenter, "American Drama: A Bibliographic Essay," American Studies International, 21 (October 1983), 3-52.
Professor Carpenter's massive essay, though it discusses only books (not articles) and treats only studies of drama as literature (not of drama in performance), is virtually a history, in miniature, of American drama and of reactions to it, and should not be missed by any student, scholar or devotee of the subject. Newcomers to the field will find enough items to fill their shop-ping lists to the bursting point, and students seeking dissertation topics can locate lacunae in the critical record--there are not a few--and help to fill them. While the survey may justify Carpenter's lament at "the shaky stature of American drama as a scholarly discipline," the materials covered are astounding--in quantity, if not always in quality--and one admires the candor of the author's verdicts, though they will doubtless raise as many hackles as huzzahs. Four pages (24-28) are devoted to books on O'Neill (a 1930s drawing of whom, as seen above, graces the cover); and the essay concludes with a 13-page bibliography (303 items, 32 of them totally or largely about O'Neill) that whets one's appetite for Professor Carpenter's forthcoming International Bibliography of Modern Drama Scholarship and Criticism, 1966-1980, about ten percent of whose 27,200 entries "deal with American drama, theater, and playwrights." Incidentally, in terms of numbers of entries on individual playwrights in the imminent volume, only one American--O'Neill--ranks in the top 14--"(in a sixth-to-eighth cluster with Ionesco and Claudel), though Williams, Miller, and Albee squeeze into the top twenty. No one else--not Thornton Wilder, despite heavy German backing; not Clifford Odets, despite residual leftist appeal; not Lillian Hellman, despite the obvious--makes the top fifty." Thanks for the stats, Professor Carpenter, and for a lively, incisive survey. Dissertators, to work! -FCW.
9. Reinhold Grimm, "A Note on O'Neill, Nietzsche and Naturalism: Long Day's Journey Into Night in European Perspective," Modern Drama, 26 (September 1983), 331-334.
Noting that the senior Tyrone mentions Ibsen and Nietzsche side by side in the fourth act of Long Day's Journey, Grimm points out the ways in which O'Neill's play was influenced by both writers--its structure, naturalism and symbolic technique bearing a close resemblance to Ibsen's Ghosts; Edmund's last-act attitudes and reminiscences clearly traceable to Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy--and the ways in which both influences are partially tempered by two others: Nietzsche's philosophical predecessor, Schopenhauer; and Ibsen's theatrical successor, Strindberg. All of this in three pages. Not for speed-readers! --FCW.
10. Joyce Deveau Kennedy, "O'Neill's Lavinia Mannon and the Dickinson Legend," American Literature, 49, 1 (1977), 108-113.
Sorry for the tardy mention, but I just discovered the essay via the June 1984 issue of Abstracts of English Studies. Kennedy opines that Lavinia Mannon may be a composite of Emily and Lavinia Dickinson--especially the former, whose paternal attachment and subsequent bereavement are markedly similar to those of Ezra Mannon's daughter. Kennedy cites the first manuscript draft of the play, in which Lavinia exhibits the "living entombment in the family homestead," the wearing of white, and the "alien existence in a world of humans" popularly attributed to Emily Dickinson. An intriguing inference, worthy of further pursuit. --FCW.
11. John Finegan, "Big Mystery of Eugene O'Neill," Evening Herald, Dublin, Ireland (June 16, 1984), p. 15.
The article followed a discussion between Finegan and Edward L. Shaughnessy, who was in Ireland for the summer to continue his study of the reception of O'Neill's plays in that country. The "mystery" is the infrequent appearance of O'Neill's plays on Dublin stages at a time when the works of Miller, Williams and Albee "surface [there] with unfailing regularity." Finegan notes that a number of O'Neill's plays have never been staged in Dublin--among them, The Great God Brown, All God's Chillun Got Wings, Marco Millions, Dynamo, and Strange Interlude, "one of O'Neill's most compelling dramas." And of the S.S. Glencairn quartet, only In the Zone, produced in February 1926 by the Dublin Drama League, has ever been done there. It's a mystery, says Finegan, not only because of O'Neill's ancestral roots in Co. Kilkenny, but because "some of the greatest performances seen on the Irish stage this century have been in plays by O'Neill--such as Ria Mooney's Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey in 1959 at the Abbey (surely the finest portrayal in the last 30 years by an Irish actress)...." Perhaps Prof. Shaughnessy's study, when published, will solve the mystery; and perhaps his visit and Finegan's article will spark an O'Neill revival. --FCW.
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